Tom Wright on Christian Hope
This is something of an early review on the book “Surprised by Hope” by Tom Wright (Or N.T. Wright to his more scholarly audience), who, for those of you unaware, is the Bishop of Durham in the Anglican Communion, and one of the more prominent New Testament theologians of our day.
I say this is an early review because I haven’t actually finished the book yet. However, Dr. Wright (If it is appropriate to refer to him as such, I have no way of knowing the proper form of address for a Bishop, and if he ever reads this review then I hope I shall be forgiven such ignorance) is a man who manages to generate such a vastly diverse – and yet strangely coherent – set of ideas on one issue that he has already managed to have me thinking a great deal on the subject of this work even after only reaching the halfway mark.
Surprised by Hope is an exploration of the truth regarding the afterlife in Christian thought… or, to put it more precisely, the lack of an afterlife. Wright seeks to lay out literally centuries of misunderstanding regarding the whole concept of what we refer to as “resurrection,” and in its place more fully explain the actual Biblical truth. The misunderstandings, he recounts in a very detailed way, regard how modern Christians often believe that when the Bible speaks of resurrection, they take it to mean our “Going to Heaven,” in that we envisage our earthly corpses being completely left behind to decay when we die followed by an immediate transition of our “spiritual selves” (often referred to as the “soul” or “spirit”) to the dimension of Heaven, God’s dwelling place. The book’s concern is to explicate Biblical truth on the matter and to show that this is in fact not what Jesus and the Apostles taught at all, but rather that when they encouraged us to pray “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as in Heaven,” they meant it quite literally. The resurrection of the dead, as it is laid out in the New Testament, is based in the thoroughly Jewish theology that God will one day transform (and is indeed transforming as we speak) the entire creation. Wright’s ultimate argument is that just as Jesus Christ underwent the transformation of a full bodily resurrection after He died and rose again, so too will we be raised and transformed in entirely the same manner. He draws a lot of inspiration from 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul discusses how God will one day transform our current physical bodies to be spiritual bodies when the Kingdom comes, and that because of what Christ has accomplished upon the cross, this is actually already happening in the current moment. The reality, then, as far as Jesus and the first Christians were concerned, wasn’t that we would leave this earthly plain at all, but rather that the earth would be made into a new creation along with ourselves.
I can imagine that at this point some Christians would argue “Does it really matter, though? Don’t we Christians have more important things to be worrying about than the precise nature of what God will or won’t do, or what does or doesn’t happen when we die? Surely it’s not important to guess what “heaven” might be like, since none of us knows?”
This is actually a major cornerstone of Wright’s overall purpose in writing this work. Not only is it his desire to correct the misconception of resurrection, but he argues that whether we cling to the old (non-Biblical) tradition of Heaven or whether we embrace the actual truth greatly impacts how we conduct ourselves spiritually in the here and now. For example, a Christian stuck in the idea that we are “going to Heaven” after we die might be inclined, however subconsciously, to feel complacent about the injustices of the world and its suffering because they believe that ultimately this world doesn’t matter and will one day be destroyed once God’s judgement comes. Their priority might be the business of “saving souls,” to gather as many believers and disciples as is possible so that they can be prepared to “go home” once Jesus comes again. To illustrate this point even further, Wright speaks of how American fundamentalists have often approached him to argue that environmentalism and matters of ecological concern are a waste of time, because this world is utterly fallen and God is far more concerned with gaining believers in Christ in time for the end. He goes on to comment, with a subtle undertone of sadness complimenting his outrage, that this line of thinking is not only dangerous but entirely blasphemous.
A Christian who holds fast to the Biblical truth, he argues, understands what the scriptures say in that the resurrection from the dead means not only transformation for ourselves, but also the entire cosmos. God has begun a mysterious work in the universe because of what Jesus has accomplished upon that cross, and when we are awakened to that truth, we become of a heart and mind where we ourselves will work for that transformation. The Christian who understands that God is not preparing to unleash His destructive wrath on a hopeless world, but rather change the whole cosmos into the one it was always meant to be, has their attitude more conformed to working out God’s love, peace, and justice in the here and now, since they are preparing for the time when that justice will come in fullness. Wright wishes the church, then, to be of a heart and mind where we embody such transformation in the present time, knowing that our work does not happen in vain but will eventually be used by God when the Kingdom comes.
All this, of course, is but a mere summary, and I can’t do appropriate justice to this thorough examination in a single blog post. There are many elements which stick out in my mind and blow me away, though. For example, in one chapter Wright discusses the so-called “rapture” event described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, wherein Paul talks about Jesus’ second coming and how he apparently describes all existing believers being “caught up” to meet Him in the air. This one passage has become the subject of much discourse within more conservative churches obsessed with endtimes studies, and has been featured quite prominently in Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ fictional Left Behind series (As a testimony to the author’s subtle yet smile-raising humour, he points out how this book series has not only been a bestseller in America but has also found a considerable audience in the UK, although “I can’t imagine who in my own country might be buying them…”). Firstly, Wright explains that this passage cannot be taken in isolation, but must be placed in context with other verses where Paul is describing the exact same event, such as 1 Corinthians 15:23-27 and Philippians 3:20-21. Moreover, he gets into the exact meaning of the term Parousia as inferring not only a “coming” or “appearing” event, but also a royal presence. This term was often used to talk about the visitation of the Emperor to a colony or province, whereby the citizens of such an area would come to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to the ruler if he had to make the effort to meet his subjects where they are, as if they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to meet him halfway. Likewise, Dr. Wright expounds, Paul is using a deliberate metaphor which would have been familiar to his readers. There is no “leaving behind” the fallen, sinful creation to its own depravity, then, but every bit of creation coming to be transformed by the returning Christ, with the citizens of His Kingdom prepared to meet Him as He appears.
On that same point, Dr. Wright has a great knack for drawing out some amazingly radical ideas from what is essentially thoroughly conservative and orthodox Biblical theology. He unashamedly defends all the essential components of Christian faith, from the crucifixion, to the actual bodily resurrection of Christ, to His ascension, right through to His actual second coming at the time of judgement. And yet, from all of this orthodoxy, Wright draws out a definitive urgency on the part of the church to effect good stewardship of the creation and justice for the oppressed in the present time, concepts which are sadly lost on (or at least downplayed by) much of the broader church. Additionally, Wright also stresses the Lordship of Christ for what it actually is. Within his examination of the Parousia, for example, he points out that not only was Paul using a royal term to speak of Jesus as the one true Lord, but he was also pointing towards the truth that it is ultimately God alone, through the return of Christ, who will transform the creation in fullness and effect complete justice and vindication of the oppressed. The implication, then, is that Caesar, for whom the term Parousia would have ordinarily been used, would not be the agency through which such transformation will occur. Put simply: God’s restoration of the universe rests upon the truth that Jesus Christ is the one true Lord of all creation, with every other person claiming the title “lord” (or similar) and offering “genuine change” being but a parody of this greater truth. As the author writes in his own words:
Confessing Jesus as the ascended and coming Lord frees up the political task from the necessity to pretend that this or that programme or leader has the key to Utopia (if only we would elect him or her). Equally, it frees up our corporate life from the despair that comes when we realise that, once again, our political systems let us down. The ascension and appearing of Jesus constitute a radical challenge to the entire thought structure of the Enlightenment (and of course several other movements). And, since our present western politics is very much the creation of the Enlightenment, we should think seriously about the ways in which, as thinking Christians, we can and should bring that challenge to bear.
Although Dr. Wright appears to want to be careful with the language he is using, one finds a very subversive theology emerging from his thought. He is essentially saying, in subtlety if not outright, that the governments and political systems of the world do not have a part in the human agency through which God’s Kingdom will come, and that this agency depends on how the church today will challenge those systems rather than adhere to them. Wright comes across as almost anarchist in his thinking (Although he has specifically eschewed that term elsewhere), and it would be interesting to know what kind of praxis he adopts in his own life for these obviously passionate thoughts of his.
This wouldn’t be a review, however, without some hopefully constructive criticism to balance out near-idolisation at this point (Because, obviously, N.T. Wright browses blogs all the time looking for the average person’s opinion of his work, and will no doubt set apart what this 25-year-old amateur theologian has to say amidst the hundreds of respected and qualified peers who have critiqued him; Obviously). While purporting some incredible understandings of scripture and new ideas to challenge his audience, it strikes me that it actually takes Dr. Wright some time to get to his main points. A few dozen of the first pages come across almost as one gigantic rant about the traditional idea of going to heaven, with some odd and distracting juxtapositions of Paul the Apostle and then, say, The Importance of Being Earnest in order to flesh out his argument. I fear he might lose a fair chunk of his audience this way, some of whom could be mere Christian simpletons who aren’t particularly cultured and just want to get to the meat and potatoes (In the nicest vegan way I can possibly employ that colloquialism). I mean, I am one such Christian simpleton myself, and I could easily have given up 30 pages in were I not thoroughly interested in what Wright has to say.
Also, I was a little disappointed at Dr. Wright’s analysis of Hell within all of this, which itself is discussed only fleetingly, something I found surprising given the nature of the work. When he starts getting into his examination of the Biblical concept of resurrection, Wright talks in an extremely positive and optimistic way, referring to portions of scripture such as 1 Corinthians 15:28 (“God shall be all in all”) and Colossians 1:15-20 to discuss how the resurrection is not an event that will be confined to those genuinely-believing Christians, but will actually mean the entire restoration of the universe itself, transformation for all things. From the same chapter of Colossians 1 in verse 23, where Paul speaks of how the Gospel has been “proclaimed to every creature,” Wright discusses how the achievement of Jesus Christ upon the cross is by no means limited to its effects on human beings who affirmatively believe the Gospel, but that “it resonates out, in ways that we can’t fully see or understand, into the vast recesses of the universe.”
After using such beautiful language to talk about the resurrection, it is somewhat surprising that further into the book, he seems almost flustered on the matter of Hell. Wright departs from confidence into speculation about the subject, and quite astonishingly (and probably aware of the fact too), he derives his opinion from no Biblical basis. Explaining that he finds traditional views of Hell too harsh and yet the modern view of Christian Universalism too “liberal,” Dr. Wright tries to find an acceptable midway point and stabs in the dark at the idea that those in the world who reject God’s redemption will turn away so far from the Image of God within them that they will “cease to be human” when the resurrection happens, and instead become beings whose state is beyond pity.
I can certainly sympathise with Dr. Wright in one respect, in that a clear tension exists between the Biblical idea that God will one day sentence the wicked (whomever they may be) to eternal punishment and the equally Biblical idea that God will restore all creation to Himself. This is a very difficult reconciliation to have to make, and it may be that this is one more area to which we will have to accord the mystery of God. It just struck me that the author is somewhat uncertain in his analysis and could stand to be a little more convincing about it. At least, if nothing else, the tension between these two Biblical views ought to be more clearly outlined so that it could become a potential dialogue within the church.
With those critiques aside, however, I am thoroughly enjoying this book so far, and it could be that I will have more to review upon finishing. Needless to say, it’s recommended where you’re able to find it, and can be enjoyed provided the weaknesses are understood to be worth it in light of the impressive ideas Dr. Wright has to convey.